Not any more

Canadian authorities board Tamil migrant ship off B.C. coast

In Canada on August 12, 2010 at 20:20

ALERT: Despite comments from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews earlier in the day, officials are now saying Canadian authorities have not boarded the Tamil migrant ship off the coast of British Columbia. Canadian authorities are believed to be escorting the vessel.

Canadian authorities boarded a suspected Tamil migrant ship off the coast of British Columbia on Thursday after it entered Canadian waters and then attempted to change course, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said.

Toews, on his way to Victoria, said the vessel is carrying 490 people who are claiming refugee status "including suspected human smugglers and terrorists."

The vessel was expected to land on shore late Thursday evening or early Friday morning.

"Personnel from the HMCS Winnipeg boarded the motor vessel Sun Sea after it deviated course toward Port Alberni," Toews said. "The Winnipeg attempted to hail the Sun Sea several times and, after establishing communications, the vessel declared that it had refugees on board."

Port Alberni is on Vancouver Island, about 200 kilometres northwest of Victoria.

Echoing tough statements the government has made all week, Toews said: "Human-smuggling and human-trafficking are despicable crimes. They are both illegal and dangerous.

"Human-smugglers and human-traffickers are now watching Canada’s response to judge whether or not they can continue to take advantage of us. . . . We will send a message loud and clear to other criminals: ‘If you do this, then you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.’ "

He would not give details of how the ship was boarded, and nothing about the condition of the passengers was immediately known.

But he added: "While our government believes in offering protection to genuine refugees, it is imperative that we prevent supporters and members of a criminal or terrorist organization from abusing Canada’s refugee system."

Experts say the migrants are likely fleeing Sri Lanka after the end of a war of independence between the Tamil Tigers army and the Sri Lankan government. The Tamil Tigers are considered a terrorist organization by Canada and its members are banned from entering the country.

Staff at the Victoria General Hospital have been busy preparing to treat the migrants, after there were reports that one person had died on board.

Some of the would-be refugees, including women and children, may have serious health problems after their three-month voyage, health officials said.

The coast guard has been tracking the ship’s progress up the West Coast since July.

When the cargo ship makes landfall, it’s expected the passengers will be processed by Citizenship and Immigration Canada officials before being taken to two Vancouver-area jails to be housed.

The high commissioner of Sri Lanka said the ship is a human-smuggling operation that is linked to the Tamil Tigers, and that the captain of the ship, a man named "Vinod," is a known member of the terrorist group.

"The captain has been a sea Tiger and a smuggler, who was involved in (arms) procurement," said Chitranganee Wagiswara, the high commissioner, in Ottawa.

Wagiswara, whose job is to maintain government relations between Canada and Sri Lanka, said she knows there are terrorists aboard the ship because of "intelligence."

She said the government should turn the ship away, even though other groups have said it contains refugees who are fleeing persecution.

"What we would like Canada to do is not accept these people, these illegal immigrants, because these are criminal elements that are trying to come into the country, and abusing the Canadian system," she said.

But Tamil advocates in Canada cautioned against making an automatic link between the ethnic group with the terrorist organization.

"The Tamil minority within the island of Sri Lanka has been demonized and criminalized," said Krisna Saravanamuttu, a spokesman for the National Council of Canadian Tamils.

"What I would encourage our federal government to do, is to treat these individuals with compassion, give them their due process, let (them) go through the system just like any other refugee in this country."

Both NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the migrants have a legal right to be assessed as refugees.

"Every refugee claimant should be treated the same way, under Canadian law," Chow said. "They have a right, and we have a right to examine them individually, and that’s what we should do. Whether they arrive by boat, or by plane, they should have the same rights under the refugees law."

Ignatieff said the migrants "have a right to have individual refugee determination."

"These people have been on the high seas for I don’t know how long . . . if they’re found to have suspect or difficult pasts then that has to be independently established," he told the Nunatsiaq News.

"If we find that they are security risks, then they have to be sent home. But in Canada, we do it one by one. And that’s the way we ought to do it with this boat."

Sharryn Aiken, associate dean of the Queen’s University Faculty of Law and an expert on immigration and refugee law, said that even if members of the Tamil Tigers were aboard the ship, they may not be sent back to Sri Lanka.

"They may not be eligible for refugee protection but they may be eligible to remain in Canada because of a risk of torture upon return to Sri Lanka. And that’s something that we have to balance. We balance the risk to Canada and the risk of return. But certainly Canada has an absolutely clear international legal obligation as well as domestic obligation in the Charter of Rights not to return anyone to where they’re at risk of torture or other serious human rights abuses," said Aiken.

"The best thing that Canada can do is promote a lasting peace in Sri Lanka, so people will no longer have to flee. And Canada’s record in that regard has been abysmal. We’ve done very little to foster the cause of peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka."

The ship is the second in less than a year to arrive with Tamil refugees aboard.

Last October, a smaller cargo ship, the Ocean Lady, was intercepted by HMCS Regina and taken to Victoria, where 76 Tamils disembarked.

Many speculated that some of the men aboard the Ocean Lady were members of the Tamil Tigers, the paramilitary arm of the Tamil independence movement.

The migrants have since been released, pending the refugee claim process, and most are living in Toronto.

So far, none of them have been linked to the Tamil Tigers.

— Postmedia News and Victoria Times Colonist

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

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